Take a cushion. And possibly a hanky. You will be sitting poolside and the concrete bleachers are precisely as firm as they sound; you may also get water in your eyes, hence the hanky (the water will not have come from the pool).
Writer Steve Rodgers had first imagined The Pool would be staged in a conventional theatre “with silk cloth as water in a wash of blue light”. That sort of thing.
Kate Champion, Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, went for the literal approach. She thought a play about people having deeply personal conversations, overcoming fears, facing problems and making connections at a public swimming pool should, in fact, take place at a public swimming pool.
Perched on those bleachers, the audience eavesdrops on private thoughts – transmitted directly through individual headsets – in the incomparably soothing presence of water. It’s a considerable technical achievement. The sound quality under the direction of Tim Collins was impeccable on opening night.
As Champion points out, the local council pool is an egalitarian place. Anyone with a towel and a swimsuit can come. And everyone has a story.
Rodgers, Champion as director and a wonderful cast of 10 tell a clutch of them. Joni, nearing 40, has a whole lot of baggage to shed. Her parents worry about her and irritate her. A school-aged couple flirts, the pool supervisor has a tricky staff issue to deal with, an instructor has a fearful adult student (that would be Joni) to cajole and an older bloke needs hydrotherapy for his wonky bits.
We hear about classes for the little ones (tadpoles, frogs), a book club that has just chucked out one of its members and health problems (compromised mobility, lady bits). Sometimes thoughts are unspoken but heard as if the audience is inside the speaker’s head – thoughts about being different by virtue of ethnicity, physical issues or defining incidents from the past.
The focus shifts about, the stories coming together like pieces of a jigsaw to make a whole picture of life’s joys and struggles.
Everything is worth hearing but two threads are particularly affecting.
Bristly Joni (Emma Jackson) has good reason to shy away from swimming but summons the courage to get in the pool. Her lesson with Kirk (Joel Jackson) made the heart explode.
Morgan (Carys Munks) unflinchingly described the Sturge-Weber syndrome that affects her vision and arm movements but doesn’t stop her from being a member of the (real-life) swimming club Superfins. Then she got in the water and swam beautifully, touchingly trailed by a group of swimmers dubbed the Chorus.
The Chorus is – there is no better word – a masterstroke. Ever-present in the pool, gliding up, down and around, the swimmers at times helped guide the audience’s attention to speakers or offered silent support. They may or may not have executed the occasional water bomb.
Their quietly but brilliantly choreographed inclusion is a reminder of Champion’s deep background in dance, and the gentle swoosh as they moved through the water was a luscious part of the soundscape.
Rodgers based The Pool on interviews he conducted at pools in Perth and Sydney. They are places where you can find the old and the young, the able-bodied and disabled, the slender and the comfortable, those born in Australia and those not, children of migrants, people needing rehab and men and women who swim like gods.
They’re all in The Pool and the audience can get in, too.
After about 100 minutes of action people who have registered ahead of time are invited to jump in for a short aquafit class that cleverly acts as the show’s closing minutes.
The Pool is at Bold Park Aquatic Centre, Perth, until 25 February, part of the 2024 Perth Festival.